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Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary

It is a power lesson in museology: the monumental past forcing the visitor to reflect on the present.

Close to Fairmont Park and Philadelphia’s Art Museum, Rodin Museum and new Barnes lies Eastern State Penitentiary. This is an archaeological site with a difference: here you learn about the origins of modern prisons and their contemporary circumstances. What is hidden away has been preserved and made accessible with a brilliant audio tour narrated by the Hollywood actor, Steve Buscemi.

The Gothic fortress walls of Eastern State Penitentiary

In Benjamin Franklin’s house in the 1787, the founding father and two friends debated how prisons in the revolutionary country should be places of penitence not holding pens for those removed from society. Opened in 1829, following a design by John Haviland, it was an architectural phenomenon. Haviland created a hub and spoke arrangement within high, neo-Gothic fortress walls.

One of the radiating spokes - lines of individual cells

Inside either side of the radiating corridor spokes were cells with small outside yards the size of a pig sty. Up to 400 convicted prisoners were confined to these cells in total isolation from one another to do penance for the duration of their sentences. This quasi-Quaker system was eventually abandoned in 1913 and up until 1970 the prison followed the more familiar Sing-Sing formula with prisoners crammed in together.

The prison today operates as a historic monument, much of it in ruins, some cells – such as Al Capone’s from 1929, restored. The visitor is led through the concept and history of the place, as though this was the ruin of a small ancient town. But there is a difference. Apart from the vivid sense of human anguish cramped into these haunting spaces, there is a contemporary exhibit. Here, with films and graphics, the staggering growth in the US prison population is described. From the time that the Eastern Penitentiary was closed nearly fifty years ago until today, incarcerated inmates have risen from the 70,000s to 2.2 million across the country. The cost to the USA is staggering.

Al Capone's cell reconstructed (1929)

I came away from this experience utterly buzzing with thoughts. Such is the success of this great monument. The narrative is subtle and thoughtful. Plainly the USA needs a Ben Franklin to design a solution to today’s human and social catastrophe.

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